Despite his limited range, Talat Mahmood represented a generation of singers who have stood for traditions and values of Indian classical music. They are now fading away unless revived. The golden period of Hindi film music needs to be preserved
As a singing star, the matchless KL Saigal was at the pinnacle of his career in 1944 when a relatively unknown, handsome young boy, who was just 20 years old, took the country by storm. Talat Mahmood was picked up by HMV from Lucknow, brought to Calcutta and was given a break through a non-film ghazal disc, Tasveer Teri Dil Mera Behla Na Sakegi. This sensational debut disc was an instant hit and remains so for connoisseurs till date, even after over 60 years.
Mahmood was never a challenger to Saigal as both had a different style of singing altogether. But after the untimely demise of Saigal in 1947, one can say that Mahmood emerged as a worthy successor to him. If it was Saigal who popularised the ghazals in the thirties and forties, took them to the common man and virtually resurrected Ghalib — the fifties belonged to Talat Mahmood.
After independence, the focus of the Hindi film industry shifted from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Bombay (now Mumbai). Mahmood, who used to sing in Bangla just as as Tapan Kumar, also shifted to Bombay in 1949. His voice having already preceded him, he did not face the difficulty of establishing himself. But one always needed a mentor in the film industry. Anil Biswas, the doyen of Hindi film music, having realised the rare qualities of vibrato in Mahmood’s voice, took him under his wings and perfected his style for ghazals, giving him the necessary poise and balance.
His first big banner was Shahid Latif and Ismat Chughtai’s Arzoo (1950), where he sang for Dilip Kumar ‘Ae Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal...’ The film was based on Emily Bronte’s classic, Wuthering Heights with Kamini Kaushal in the lead. Though real life stories of the lead pair’s romance were also a contributory factor to the success of the film, what one remembers till today is Mahmood’s soulful rendering and the way inner feelings of the screen persona had been brought out.
Tarana of 1951 was yet another musical hit by Anil Biswas that featured Dilip Kumar and Madhubala together for the first time. Mahmood’s ghazal, ‘Seene Mein Sulagte Hain Armaan’ became an instant hit. Giving one hit song after another, Mahmood’s dream run continued as the voice of Dilip Kumar, for whom he sang in Shikast (1951), Daag (1952), ‘Ae mere dil kahin aur chal’ and ‘Shame gham ki kasam aaj….’ in Footpath (1953) and ‘Ye hawa yeh raat ye chandni’ in Sangdil (1952).
Those days, Dilip Kumar was known as the tragedy king and Mahmood was able to capture sensitivity and portrayed the melancholy in his moods to perfection. The crowning glory was Devdas (1955), where he sang for Dilip Kumar two very difficult compositions, ‘Mitwa Lagi Re Yeh Kaisi...’ and the almost soliloquy-like ‘Kis Ko Khabar Thi’... In both, he was able to bring out the essence of longing, helplessness, loneliness and frustration as never before. Mahmood’s success story also had a confutation.
The then top music director, Naushad, brought him to sing for Dilip Kumar ‘Mera jeevan saathi bichhad gaya’ in Babul (1951) but despite his memorable rendition, he broke off with him on a trivial issue. It was only in 1968, after a gap of 17 years, that Naushad called Mahmood to sing once again for Dilip Kumar in Aadmi (1968).
Mahmood’s absence offered an opportunity to Mohammed Rafi. This period saw the consolidation of the Naushad-Mohammad Rafi relationship, with Mahmood going out of Baiju Bawra (1952). But he continued to dominate the early 50s as Rafi was yet to establish himself fully. Even the duo, Shankar Jaikishan, who had a different style, used him for Dev Anand in Patita (1953) for the memorable song, ‘Hain Sab Se Madhur Woh Geet...’ A few years later, Mahmood was again virtually resurrected by them through the film, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1993), where he sang for Dev Anand, ‘Tum To Dil Ke Taar Chhed Kar...’
An immensely talented singer, with dashing good looks, Mahmood had a huge fan following, particularly amongst the fairer sex. He tried his hand at acting, too, as after Saigal, there was no first rate singer-actor. He did try to fill the gap but could not succeed. Out of the 17 films he acted in, noted among them were Aaram (1951) with Dev Anand and Madhubala, Ek Gaon Ki Kahani (1957) with Mala Sinha, Sone Ki Chidiya (1958) and Waaris (1969).
Mahmood’s vocal charisma was such that he, at times, gave a complex to others but himself remained a scene stealer. Taxi driver (1954) is remembered more for his song, ‘Jayen To Jayen Kahan...’ than any other sequence or song memories of Sujata. The 1959 Bimal Roy classic may have receded but for the song on telephone — ‘Jalte Hein Jiske Liye..’. One may have entirely forgotten about Sone Ki Chidiya but Mahmood serenading and imploring Nutan in a boat singing, ‘Pyaar Par Bas To Nahin Hai...’ penned by Sahir Ludhianvi remains evergreen.
Known by several epithets, the ghazal king, the velvet voice, the silken touch, Talat Mahmood, a fine gentleman, exuded ‘Lucknawi nazakat’ from every pore. His unique style remains unmatched till date. We have had clones of great singers like Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar but none has even tried coming anywhere near Mahmood.
Despite his limited range, Mahmood represented a generation of singers, who have stood for traditions and values of Indian classical music. They are now fading away and may be forgotten entirely, unless revived. The golden period of Hindi film music is a part of our cultural heritage and surely needs to be preserved and cherished. Let us attempt to do that on the 95th birth anniversary of Mahmood on February 24.
(The writer is a retired Delhi Police Commissioner and former Governor of Meghalaya and Uttarakhand)